Topic: Government and Politics

Hey Baby

Did you know that last year, Paris was a much more popular girls’ name than Britney? Or that Madison was the 3rd most popular girls’ name, while Jefferson was only ranked 628th among boys’ names? Or that 179 baby boys were actually named Baby?

More importantly, do you care about any of this? I sure don’t, but the government does.

As Senator Tom Coburn points out, the Social Security Administration, wastes significant time and money compiling this report on popular baby names.

Senator Coburn astutely jests, “Increasing one’s web traffic doesn’t seem to be in the Constitutional charter of the Social Security program. Your tax dollars hard at work, indeed.”

Should We Criminalize OPEC?

Well, should we? An increasing number of Congressmen seem to think so. Last year, Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH) introduced the “No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act” (S. 555), aka “NOPEC,” which would make oil-producing and exporting cartels abroad illegal. Although the bill went nowhere, supporters have tried repeatedly to attach it to energy legislation moving through the House and Senate. The idea was last spotted when Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) embraced elements of the bill in his relatively unhinged “Oil and Gas Antitrust Act of 2006” (S. 2557), and the trade press is full of reports that the next GOP energy bill might well include NOPEC in its legislative basket of economic buffoonery.

You might think that imposing U.S. antitrust law on foreign, state-owned companies that (with the exception of CITGO) operate nowhere near U.S. borders is such a crackpot idea that only an American politician could entertain such a thing with a straight face. You would be wrong. The other day, Ariel Cohen and William Schirano at the Heritage Foundation gave NOPEC an enthusiastic thumbs-up. “If Congress is serious about alleviating the price-gouging that contributes to high gas prices,” they wrote, “it ought to begin by allowing the federal government to sue OPEC.”

The temptation is to simply ignore nonsense like this. But nonsense like this (particularly on the energy front) is increasingly the coin of the legislative realm. So let’s do what its proponents have obviously not done and give the idea a few moments of thought.

First, the obvious question arises—exactly how would the U.S. government enforce such a law? After all, I rather doubt that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Venezuela, et al will quickly disband the cartel in a panic once Uncle Sam deems their club illegal under U.S. law. “You and who’s army?!” is the natural response we might expect. Given that no army would be on the way to stamp out such illegal activity, which leaves trade sanctions or nothing. The former would be counterproductive while the latter would be embarrassing.

Next, exactly what gives the Congress the right to impose U.S. economic regulations on companies that aren’t doing business in the United States? Do all national governments have this right, or only the United States? If the former, what’s to prevent Saudi Arabia from declaring it illegal for U.S. banks to charge interest on loans (an activity ostensibly banned in many Islamic countries)? If the latter, then it’s a naked statement that U.S. policy is premised upon the idea that the biggest guy on the playground makes the rules for everyone else whether they like it or not—might makes right. And if so, then wouldn’t those forced against their will to live under U.S. law rightly argue that subjects of governmental power ought to have a right to vote about the laws they are compelled to live under? Or is that a right that only applies for some and not others?

Finally, there’s an economic principle of real importance at stake. To wit, who should have the final say over how much of a product or service is delivered by a commercial enterprise; the owners or the customers? If the latter, then companies are merely slaves of the state, dictated to produce as much as the public wants regardless of business considerations. Does the Heritage Foundation really want to plant their flag on that proposition?

One might argue that the state can prohibit price fixing and collusion without prohibiting companies from having the final say over their own production schedules absent coordination between firms. But there are a large number of oil economists who maintain that OPEC is not really a cartel at all—it’s simply a vehicle through which Saudi Arabia unilaterally exercises power over the market—and that collusion within OPEC is not particularly meaningful. If so, then NOPEC would have little effect even if by some miracle it could be enforced.

Even so, what if OPEC countries preferred to constrain production so that sufficient reserves would be available down the road when they would presumably be more valuable? In that case, production restraint might simply be another form of national savings. Should the U.S. Congress be in the business of declaring such trade-offs between present and future revenues “illegal”?

Sure, it would be wonderful if private companies owned oil reserves, not national governments. And it would be nice from the consumers’ point of view if those companies produced as many barrels of crude as a normal profit would allow. And it would be wonderful if OPEC disappeared tomorrow. But Congress’ ability to translate those wishes into reality as far as foreign petroleum operations are concerned is probably nonexistent.

The best we can do is to refuse to help the Cartel or its members in the course of their enterprise. Sending the Texas Rangers or some such after them would render us an international joke.

Politics Is Not Religion

Will Wilkinson offers some telling criticisms of Charles Morris’ recent New York Times op-ed.

Morris writes that the economy has a “spiritual dimension” that is lacking in contemporary America. He implies that an active and expansive government should supply a “conviction of fairness, a feeling of not being totally on one’s own, a sense of reasonable stability and predictability.”

The state, then, should be in the business of providing spiritual goods.

Morris’ essay reminded me of what one of the founders of neo-conservatism, Irving Kristol, once wrote: “A nation whose politics turn on the cost of false teeth is a nation whose politics are squalid.”

So politics is apparently about more than mere material matters; it has a higher dimension. In our time, that higher dimension has become the politics of national greatness that in turn became a crusade to bring democracy to others.

Both Kristol and Morris are confusing politics for religion. They expect more from politics than it can or should give. Or at least, they expect more than a politics consistent with liberty can give.

The End of “Reform” at the New York Times?

The reporters and editorial writers at the New York Times are powerful advocates of imposing new restrictions on campaign spending. They typically refer to the leaders of interest groups like Common Cause as “advocates of campaign finance reform.” That helps the cause of restricting campaign finance. After all, who could be against “reform”?

So it is noticeable when the New York Times calls the partisans of restrictions something other than “reformers.” In today’s edition, a Times reporter twice called them “advocates of changing campaign financing.”

It is both a revealing and misleading choice. It is misleading because these people seek more restrictions on campaign finance. To be sure, they expect new restrictions will lead to changes in campaign finance, but what they actually hope to do is impose new rules that restrict campaign spending.

Here’s the revealing part: The Times has never before called the Shays-Meehan-Common Cause crowd “advocates of changing campaign finance.” They are usually called “reformers.” (I checked on Lexis-Nexis). Why the new name?

The “advocates of changing campaign financing” along with congressional Republicans are trying to eliminate 527 groups; today’s article concerns one skirmish in that war. That effort against 527s is expected to harm the Democrats who used the groups extensively in 2004.

So if a person pushes restrictions on speech like McCain-Feingold that were expected to help the Democrats, the New York Times called them “advocates of campaign finance reform.” If the same person demands restrictions expected to hurt the Democrats, the Times dubs them “advocates of changing campaign finance.”

I know the New York Times would never have a partisan purpose in advocating restrictions on political speech. Still, this new term for their former friends does create a disturbing appearance of partisanship.

Conservatives Say: Politics Above All

The Washington Times brings news this morning that conservatives are “expressing concern and outrage” about House Speaker Denny Hastert’s strong objections to the FBI’s raid on Rep. William Jefferson’s House office.

Perhaps such “conservatives” ought to recall what the real conservative libertarian who designed the U.S. Constitution once wrote:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to controul the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controuls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to controul the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to controul itself. A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary controul on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Hastert is acting in the spirit of Federalist 51. To be sure, there are other considerations in this case, but Hastert is doing what Madison expected congressional leaders to do: stand up for his branch of the government against an encroachment from an ambitious executive. Those who are criticizing Hastert are trying to make corruption a bipartisan stain or to raise public approval of Congress by a point or two. They are ignoring the constitutional dimension of all this.

I’ll take the timeless logic of Federalist 51, thanks.

Sense and Sensenbrenner

Congressional whining over the FBI raid of Rep. William Jefferson’s office has reached the point of self-parody. Rep. James Sensenbrenner has now called for rare out-of-session hearings on the raid, titled, “Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?”

This would be the same James Sensenbrenner who wants to give federal law enforcement the power to snoop in on your Internet browsing, and who recently introduced a bill that would send parents to prison if they learn of drug activity near their children and fail to report it to authorities within 24 hours.

“Trampling the Constitution,” indeed. Amazing how reverent politicians get for the Constitution and the rights of the accused when one of their own is under the gun.

What’s the Big Idea?

I’ll be taking part tomorrow in the Hudson Institute’s 2006 Bradley Symposium. Entitled “What’s the Big Idea? True Blue versus Deep Red: The Ideas that Move American Politics,” the event features, in addition to yours truly, a who’s who of Washington intellectual heavyweights: Michael Barone, David Brooks, Francis Fukuyama, Bill Kristol, Charles Murray, and Shelby Steele, among others.

The discussion’s point of departure will be this paper by University of Virginia political scientist James Ceaser. Ceaser argues that the current red vs. blue political divisions reflect deep-seated and profoundly important differences over the sources and nature of social order.

My short take: I agree with Ceaser that such differences exist, but I disagree that it is useful to shoehorn the various alternatives into just two rival camps. Doing so allows Ceaser to cast contemporary politics as a contest between nihilism on the left and conservatism of some kind or another on the right. Ceaser thus frames the debate in a way that, in my view, unfairly favors the right.

Here’s another typology that I think is closer to the mark: one noisy minority of nihilists on the “true blue” left, another noisy minority of dogmatists on the “deep red” right, and the rest of us moping and groping around in a politically underrepresented center. From this perspective, the main problem with American politics today isn’t the unhinged left. Rather, it’s the disproportionate influence of culture warriors on the left and right alike—and the outmoded political categories that allow the cultural extremes to lord it over the center.